IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT I CHOOSE to go away with my dive club these days. Since my passion for underwater photography took hold, nine or so years ago, the idea of being part of a mixed-ability group led at a pace impossible for taking anything but snapshots fills me with horror.
So I now prefer to join dedicated underwater photography trips.
However, when, earlier this year, one of our club instructors decided to organise an affordable trip to the Seychelles, where I had never been, the opportunity was too good to miss.
To manage my own expectations, I told myself that this would not be the photographic opportunity of a lifetime but a chance to chill out with old friends – perhaps even go diving without a camera occasionally, hmm…
We have a couple of trainees in our group who have so far only braved the icy waters of Stoney Cove and Wraysbury Lake and are keen to notch up their qualifying dives in the luxury of the Indian Ocean. I hope they will realise just how lucky they are.
All I know about the Seychelles is that it was the setting for the 1979 rom-com 10 starring Bo Derek and Dudley Moore, and Castaway, that other film starring Tom Hanks and his football friend Wilson.
It is also the home of that bizarre-looking coconut species coco de mer, endemic to the Seychelles, of which both males and females exist as separate plants, the latter of which looks spectacularly like a lady’s bottom.

THE 115 ISLANDS that comprise the Seychelles exchanged hands between the English and French on numerous occasions before becoming a crown colony in 1903 and, finally, an independent state in 1976.
A couple of things quickly warm me to the place; they drive on the same side of the road and they use the same three-pin plugs.
We are staying at the Hotel Berjaya on Mahe, just 15 minutes’ drive from the airport. After spending what seems like an eternity sorting out the rooms (second floor with no lift) we toddle along to meet gorgeous Scottish Glynis who runs the PADI dive centre there, conveniently situated in the grounds of the hotel, working alongside her husband David Rowat.
I have no idea until almost the last day that David was responsible for setting up the Marine Conservation Society in the Seychelles and initiated a programme to monitor whale sharks in 1996. They initially bought the dive centre with a two-year plan – and 30 years later they’re still here.

AS WITH ALL FIRST DAYS of any diving holiday, they like to try you out with shallow, unchallenging dives.
Ours is no exception. What is unusual is that our dive-guide Simon turns out to be the Vice Consul.
Much of the underwater topography is of large granitic boulders formed eons ago by volcanic activity. There are swim-throughs and gullies, and many are plastered with red, orange and purple corals and sponges.
I’m a sucker for overhangs because, likely as not, there will be one or more whitetip or nurse sharks lurking underneath, either being cleaned or resting from a hard night’s work.
In our own Beau Vallon Bay, a coral garden stretches as far as the eye can see (of course, on a bad-vis day, this might not be very far at all!), densely populated with pale green and blue reef-fish and the very prettily spotted long-nose filefish, wafting around in small gangs of five or six.
After a second day of boulders and brown coral (the result of El Niño) things suddenly seem to get better, improved not least by the presence of the lovely Juliane, an escaped GP who has spent the past three years here.
In a conversation about anthias, or rather the surprising lack of them in these parts compared to the Red Sea, I mention that usually there are about 10 females to every male.
Juliane, a very attractive woman in her early 50s, tells me that the situation is pretty much the same on Mahe.

AFTER A FABULOUS MORNING DIVE at Concepcion, we prepare for our second dive back at Grouper, a boulder site we have already visited and which some have called less than spectacular.
However, while waiting for our rather crowded boatload of 13 guests to kit up (exactly what I had wanted to avoid) buddy Alan and I decide to go down and wait at the bottom.
Almost immediately, four large rays swim by really close and we feel privileged to have seen them alone.
Then Alan starts swimming off into the blue, and I can vaguely make out the shape of a large turtle.
I decide not to follow, as it is usually a waste of time chasing stuff into the blue, so hang back a while.
When Alan doesn’t come back to the reef, I relent and go to join him.
My reward is an amazing encounter with not one but two large hawksbill turtles, interacting with each other and with us. Apparently it is mating season, and these two are clearly interested in each other’s nether regions.
We later learn, however, that they were both males – I suppose there’s no accounting for taste. But what an opportunity for us, and one that we would have missed had we held back and waited for the group.
The turtles are loving it, ducking and diving. One goes right up to fellow-diver Simon and wants to bite the blue lanyard of his camera around his wrist.
Several times I have to back away from a turtle determined to eat its own reflection in my dome port.
It is a good 10 minutes before the rest of the boat-load slowly trickles down to join in the spectacle. Even then, the turtles make no attempt to leave, until finally they have to go up for air.
I only hope our two novices aren’t too spoiled by the event, because this sort of encounter is far from normal.
You know it is going to be a heavy dive as soon as the boat departs, not least because of the presence of Tony, an expert shark-spotter, who will lead the dive together with Finn from Ireland and Michael with the finely honed body of a praying mantis.
As we leave the relative tranquillity of Beau Vallon Bay the wind is up, a current running and a bail-out plan has already been conceived.
After a vote, we stick to the original plan and are soon plunging in and climbing down an eternal shotline. It is heavy going and we are like wind-socks, pulling hand over hand.
It is especially difficult for me as I have to hold onto my cumbersome camera rig with one hand.
By the time I get to the bottom I am quite out of breath, and a quarter of my air has gone. I take my metaphorical hat off to the guides who have got us here, but at least at the bottom it is calm.
After spending time with several thousand yellow snappers, we make our way stealthily between the now- customary granite boulders to a special place where half a dozen or more rays of various species and size are hanging out in the current. Magical. Sadly, we are allowed only a few minutes there before we have to start back.
Thanks to Tony’s navigational skills, the shotline reappears as if by magic, to my enormous relief, and we waft onto it to make our stops.
While I’m enjoying pretending to be a flag, a housed compact camera, clearly on an independent mission to the surface (unknown to its Russian owner down the line) floats by, and I grab it.
What shall I do I ponder teasing her for a while and keeping it until she notices it’s gone once back on the boat but no, her enormous relief when I hand it back while still on the line is reward enough.

THE RETURN TO THE SURFACE of others on the dive is far more exciting. Finn, having spotted what later turns out to be “the wrong shotline”, leads his charges onto it.
Our friends, who happily survive the event, later describe the feeling as similar to underwater water-skiing.
It didn’t take rocket science for them to decide to jump off and ascend naturally to the surface.
A great site for both macro and wide-angle photography is the Twin Barges. Deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef not far from shore, the passage of time has allowed a rich mixture of coral and marine life to develop there. You will find peppered morays in threes and stonefish – another ménage a trois - on the deck at the lower end of the deeper barge, along with a delightful collection of hingeback shrimps.
After a relatively short visit, as a result of the time we have clocked up at Shark Banks, we waft up to the relative shallows of the coral reef. Eventually I come across the carapace of a dead crayfish – and then its head and legs.
To while away the remainder of the dive-time (there is little else to see or do) I carefully reassemble the still brightly coloured components and lay the poor creature to rest on a small table coral. A gentle current even makes it move slightly, adding to the reality.
Philip, whose name has been changed to save further embarrassment, and not usually the first to spot items of interest on dives, is most grateful when I point it out to him, and takes several photos from various angles. How my mask leaks with laughter!
I know I should leave it at that but can’t resist telling him on the surface.
“But it was moving”, he says in his defence. Doh – as if crayfish sit out in the open!
If I were to tell you all the secrets that lie in store for you off Mahe, there’d be no point in visiting, but for big stuff – sharks, shoals and surprises – it takes some beating.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Joss Woolf’s group flew with Etihad via Abu Dhabi, making use of its 30kg baggage allowance plus 15kg extra for dive gear.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Dive Seychelles Underwater Centre based at Berjaya, Beau Vallon Bay Resort, Mahe, www.berjayahotel.com
WHEN TO GO March-May and September-November. Joss went in early November and the sea temperature was 29°C.
CURRENCY Seychelles rupee, but sterling, euros and US dollars accepted.
PRICES Return flights from £600. Dive Seychelles (www.diveseychelles.com.sc) arranged a group package for 11 nights B&B (two sharing) and 10 dives for around 950 euros per diver. A standard 10-dive package usually costs 380 euros.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.seychelles.travel